Commentary

Railway Safety Act will reduce threats to our communities, protect the environment

June 20, 2023 5:15 am
Ohio train derailment crash site recovery

Crash recovery operations underway at the site of train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio in February 2023. (U.S. EPA photo)

At a time when the nation’s attention to rail disasters has soared due to continued high-profile derailments, and with the likelihood that many more thousands of rail cars with hazardous materials are coming due to recent rail company mergers, it’s fair to say that not enough has been done in the past decade to prevent rail disasters. 

Train derailments, unfortunately, have been increasing. In February, a train carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, sending a chemical cocktail into the air over the small community and beyond and into the soil and nearby creek. 

Almost five months later, some residents are still sick and displaced from their homes, and there is no end in sight.

Sarah Zarling will present “Stories from The Frontlines: Living with Fossil Fuels and Petrochemicals” at the 32nd annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association MREA Energy Fair, 3 p.m. June 24.

Ten years ago, on July 6, 2013, at 1:15 a.m., a runaway unit oil train of 72 DOT-111 tank cars filled with Bakken crude from North Dakota rolled down a hill and into the downtown core of Lac Mégantic, Québec, Canada, where 60 tankers derailed. Many punctured and spilled over 1.5 million gallons of oil, causing a series of fires and explosions, and the oil on fire flowed through the heart of town, spilling into the Chaudiere River and incinerating everything in its path, including 47 people.

I am thankful I will finally be able to visit Lac Mégantic next month and participate in the weeks’ worth of events planned to mark the 10th anniversary of that apocalyptic night. As we remember the victims and support the survivors, the citizens of Lac Mégantic are still fighting for justice, as their downtown remains an empty reminder, and the trains continue to roll through, resulting in many people still suffering from PTSD.

These tragedies serve as an alarming reminder of the importance of safety measures in the transportation of hazardous materials by rail, particularly for the 25 million Americans who live in the oil train blast zone. We need new legislation and to finally follow the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board to improve rail safety nationwide.

The Bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 will increase accountability for rail companies, while also enhancing safety requirements for trains that transport hazardous materials.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 takes these steps:

  1. Mandates the use of defect detection technology and requires  hotbox detectors at more frequent intervals.
  2. Expands the types of hazardous materialsthat trigger increased safety regulations, including speed restrictions, better braking, and route risk analysis to include other explosive and toxic materials, including vinyl chloride, flammable gas, poisonous gas, nuclear material. Currently, the regulations apply only to flammable liquids.
  3. Requires rail companies to provide states with information about the hazardous materials being transported by rail through their communities and requires the DOT to ensure that railroads strengthen their emergency response plans and have hazmat spill response teams.
  4. Prevents railroads from imposing time limits on railcar inspections, requires mechanics be properly trained and railcars properly maintained.
  5. Increases the maximum penalty from a $100,000 fine to a $10 million fine.
  6. Requires two crewmembers to operate a train to prevent a situation where only one person is on the train in an emergency.
  7. Allows DOT to make up to $10 million available to first responders for overtime, equipment and health care assessments.
  8. Expands the existing Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant to allow fire departments to purchase personal protective gear.

Despite bipartisan support, the bill has yet to be taken to the Senate floor. What can each of us do? 

Highlight the need for more rail safety oversight. Educate our local elected officials and ask what they can do to reduce the risk of train derailments in their communities, and what their emergency response plans are.

We need to move beyond the subsidized fossil fuel and petrochemical industries that threaten our communities and the planet.

By strengthening safety requirements for trains involved in transporting hazardous materials, we can reduce the risk of accidents, improve emergency response capabilities, and enhance the overall safety and health of workers, our communities, and the environment.

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Sarah Zarling
Sarah Zarling

Sarah Zarling is an organizer, researcher, presenter in environmental justice and founder of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety in Watertown, Wisconsin.

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